One of the reasons Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death was so distressing has to do with all the squandered potential. At the time of his passing, Hoffman was operating at the height of his powers. Check out his final roles: The Master, Doubt, Moneyball, Pirate Radio. Radically different people, fully fleshed out characters.
In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman delivers a very physical performance as Gunter Bachmann, an hyper competent, solitary German spy in charge of his own unit in Hamburg (where we are told 9/11 was planned). His eyes are set on a Chechen refugee sitting on a small fortune. Bachmann believes he plans to channel these funds towards radical Muslims.
His prediction doesn’t materialize as expected, so he helps it along by forcing a shady banker (Willem Dafoe) and a human rights attorney (Rachel McAdams) into the operation. Hard to believe, but Gunter turns out to be the most ethical-minded of the spies featured in the film.
Based on a novel by John Le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), A Most Wanted Man is distilled realpolitik: Defensive plays can easily turn offensive (namely entrapment). The Americans want results and are not particularly interested in nuances, the Europeans must fight to keep control of scenarios unfolding in their own soil and about every Muslim of certain notoriety requires surveillance. There are no good guys in this farce, just less murderous operations.
As interesting as the topic is, director Anton Corbijn (responsible for the underappreciated The American) doesn’t always find the right angle to keep things compelling. At times A Most Wanted Man feels like meetings upon meetings upon meetings with a couple of stakeouts for good measure. The cast is overall competent, although Rachel McAdams lacks the gravitas to be believable as the go-to lawyer for refugees.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of A Most Wanted Man is that if no one had done anything, everybody would have been better at the end. It’s the side-effect of suspicion: It can’t coexist with peace of mind.
Ed. Note: A Most Wanted Man screens at the RPL Theatre Thursday Aug. 21 and Saturday Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. and Friday Aug. 22 and Sunday Aug. 24 at 9 p.m.